For nearly eight months, the coronavirus pandemic has prevented most of Pittsburgh’s live-performance venues from opening to in-person audiences. Artistically – and logistically – many troupes, halls and promoters have found creative ways to adapt to the era of physical distancing, from filmed online dance shows to radio-style dramas and even a drive-in arts festival.
But creating new business models that work has been tougher. Even nonprofit producers and presenters – who get much of their revenue from grants and donations – are struggling. More vulnerable still are the commercial businesses that are part of the city’s live-performance industry. Since August, several of Pittsburgh’s key independent concert venues have closed permanently, including the Rex Theater, on the South Side; brillobox, in Bloomfield; and Hambone’s, in Lawrenceville.
Proposed legislation in Harrisburg addresses the problem statewide. The Save Our Stages Act was introduced in the state House by Rep. Jake Wheatley, of Allegheny County, in October. It would allocate $200 million in grants to help tide over music venues, theaters, producers and promoters.
“We want to make sure we’re doing all we can to support these venues,” said Wheatley.
Save Our Stages would tap a $1.3 billion pool of federal CARES Act pandemic-relief funds allocated to Pennsylvania but still unspent. (By federal law, that money must be spent by year’s end, said Wheatley.) The funds would go to venues with fewer than 500 full-time employees, with other criteria based on size. Each recipient would be eligible for a grant equal to 45 percent of its 2019 gross revenue or $2 million, whichever is less. Grants could be used to pay for a wide range of expenses, from payroll and benefits to rent and mortgage payments, utilities, insurance, PPE, and more.
Promoter Brian Drusky, of Drusky Entertainment, said he’s had to cancel some 200 concerts this year at the dozen or so venues he books, from bars that host live music to Downtown’s Benedum Center. His business has been mostly dormant save for the drive-in concerts he’s booked at Butler’s Starlight Drive-In. Drusky said Save Our Stages responds adequately to the industry-wide scope of the problem.
“It’s a very good amount,” Drusky said. “I think it’s a fair assessment for what people need right now.”
Drusky Entertainment marketing manager Adam Valen is a local coordinator for the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), an advocacy group formed during the pandemic. NIVA has more than 2,000 members across the U.S. A primary goal of the group is to lobby for federal aid for the industry. That aid package, which is also called Save Our Stages, is currently being discussed on Capitol Hill as part of a potential second coronavirus aid package. Support for it has been fairly high-profile, with a nationwide petition and an October online concert featuring three dozen national acts from Brittany Howard to Foo Fighters, performing in iconic (and threatened) venues around the country.
Wheatley’s bill is officially titled “Save Our Stages: Aid to Independent Live Music Venues.” Proponents tend to emphasize its benefits for independently owned concert halls, of which there are an estimated 225 in Pennsylvania. A NIVA press release said those venues generated $1.36 billion in revenue last year and employed more than 10,000 people, most of them now unemployed.
The state bill would provide longer-term relief than, say, the federal Paycheck Protection Program, funds for which have dried up. “You know, it would save us,” said Carol Shrieve, executive director of the Carnegie of Homestead library and music hall, a nonprofit group that hosts dozens of concerts and other live performances each year in its historic building.
In fact, a wide range of venues would qualify for help, whether commercial or nonprofit, including theater companies. Spokespersons for City Theatre and the New Hazlett Theater, for example, confirmed that those organizations would be eligible to apply for assistance through the bill.
Other individual states, including Wisconsin and Oregon, have approved similar aid packages for independent venues, Valen said.
He said without such help, many more Pennsylvania venues and promoters will go under.
“There’s no doubt the industry will be able to bounce back,” said Valen. “We just need the resources to get to that point.”
The bill, HB2894, has been referred to the state House’s commerce committee. The legislature is currently in recess. Wheatly said it will take up the bill after Nov. 10, when it begins its next session.